It hurts not to ask a question
You may remember from The Smartest Guys
in the Room, the 2005 documentary on the demise of Enron, that the corporation’s slogan at the time was “Ask why”. The irony is that almost no one, outside of a couple of analysts and investors, actually asked that question.
During and after that time, when antennae should have been at their most sensitive, Bernie Madoff led the biggest Ponzi scheme in corporate history, losing an estimated $US65bn of clients’ money over a decades-long scheme. Incredibly, from 1992 to the time of his arrest in 2008, his business had been the subject of six investigations by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, yet he was still able to trade. How were Madoff’s charade and Enron’s reign able to last so long?
In both cases, very few people asked the appropriate questions, and those who did, and found answers, were not listened to by those who had the power to make a difference.
The role critical questioning plays in uncovering fraud, dealing with lazy and biased thinking or managing deep-seated problem behaviour is obvious, but it also has a role in unearthing creativity and getting the best out of a business or team. Deeper prosecution of a topic and the clarity it brings will undoubtedly foster better decisionmaking.
In fact, leadership guru Peter Drucker acknowledges that “the leader of the past was a person who told. The leader of the future will be a person who asks.”
Central to Drucker’s reasoning is debunking one of the greatest myths of leadership – the dangerous and limiting assumption that any one leader has all the answers. The reality is, it’s much more important that leaders develop the capacity to ask relevant questions as they will never have all the answers themselves.
A great question will challenge, stimulate, scare or prepare someone. It can show that you understand, you care, and you listen. Great questions allow you to circle a concept, probe it, develop it and use it. They also allow you to do so collaboratively rather than individually.
The ability to interrogate through questioning is an almost innate characteristic for humans so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that leaders be more childlike in their propensity to ask questions.
Paul Harris, a professor of education at Harvard, found that children ask about 40,000 questions between their second and fifth birthdays. As adults, the capacity or at least the tendency to do so diminishes.
A Harvard Business Review article, “To Have the Most Impact, Ask the Right Questions”, by Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe, highlights three types of questions which may be most effective:
1. Convergent questions, aiming to clarify the specifics of a situation, asking what, where, who or when.
2. Expansive questions, giving a person the opportunity to expand on their thinking, elevating them to see the broader context of their realm, asking why or what if.
3. Integrating questions, aiming to find common territory and unite disparate views, asking if ... then what.
One precaution when asking questions is the bias you potentially bring to your line of inquiry. In Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions, Gary Cohen highlights five key biases you should be aware of:
1. Negative bias – a negative experience has a larger influence on your perspective than is appropriate given the evidence.
2. Frequency bias – something you see regularly and over time may be more believable.
3. Recency bias – something you just learnt or saw may have undue influence.
4. Attachment bias – you are wedded to the status quo.
5. Confirmation bias – you are continually looking for evidence to confirm your view, ignoring potentially contradictory evidence in the process.
Of course, even if someone is asking the right questions, others must be prepared to listen and the culture must encourage such listening. Those analysts and investors who had asked some of the most important questions of Enron and Madoff were subsequently ostracised by those seduced by the ambrosia of their stories.
Harry Markopolos, the forensic accountant and author of No One Would Listen, the story of his own experience as a whistleblower in the Madoff case, alerted the SEC to the potential fraudulent activity of Madoff three times, in 2000, 2001 and 2005. His 2005 report was bluntly entitled, “The World’s Largest Hedge Fund is a Fraud”. Even then, no one listened.
No single question will necessarily touch the heart of any matter but none should be wasted either. Each question should aim to bring your team one step closer to clarity and shared understanding, and then action.
Critical questioning and respectful listening is an insurance policy against aberrant behaviour and will lead to a more creative and high-performing organisation. Good leaders ask great questions.